June 4, 2007
All you have to do is look at the 2007 Lexus IS 350 to see where they’re going with this one. Lexus has the BMW 3-series squarely in its sights – so much so you could be (almost) forgiven for mistaking the two at a distance.
Dimensionally, the IS 350 in within a whisker of its Bavarian rival. Lexus has copped the 3’s wedgy profile, negligible front overhang, chunky stance and even given a nod to BMW’s trademark Hofmeister kink in the C-pillar for crying out loud.
Lexus calls it latest design direction “L-Finesse”, and here it gives the impression of a 3-series that has been attacked with a giant rolling pin – smoothing out all the creases and de-Bangleizing it if you will.
My Breakwater Blue Metallic “Luxury with Navigation” tester, with ten-spoke 18-inch wheels filling out the sexy haunches, got all kinds of appreciating stares. One could argue Lexus has created a better looking 3-series.
The IS 350, with a starting price of $49,150, is propelled by a silken 3.5-litre V6 that generates 306 hp at 6400 r.p.m. and 277 lb.-ft. of torque at 4800 r.p.m. It is only available with rear-wheel drive and only with a six-speed manumatic. To get all-wheel-drive and/or a stick shift in an IS, you’re looking at the less muscular 204-hp IS 250.
Seems odd to me that Lexus doesn’t offer a manual shift in their type-A sports sedan, but I’m guessing most Lexus customers lean towards the luxury side of the equation.
Slide into the snug and supportive 10-way leather sport seats and you’re ensconced in an upscale and intimate driver’s environment. The interior is typical Lexus, featuring high quality surfaces and unassailable execution. The overall design is pleasant but a little bland to these eyes – not nearly as artful as the new Infiniti G35.
Can’t argue with the driving position however – all the primary controls are ideally placed. Sprouting from behind the chunky leather-wrapped steering wheel are two of the raciest aluminum-look (they’re actually plastic) shift paddles this side of a Ferrari. A “plus” sign on the right one, and “minus” on the left tell you all you need to know.
Once under way, the rigidity of the IS 350’s structure is immediately apparent: it feels incredibly solid. The well-tuned suspension (control arms in front, multi-link out back, coil springs all round) is sport-sedan firm and maintains good body control, yet remains compliant even with these 18-inch wheels. Minor road imperfections are shrugged off in a suitably luxo fashion.
Give the 3.5-litre V6 a little prod and it responds with urgency, propelling the sport sedan into license-busting speeds pronto. 100 km/h comes up in less than six seconds. This highly technical DOHC engine features dual variable valve timing, variable length intake manifold, two kinds of fuel injection (direct and port), chain driven cams, roller rockers and drive-by-wire throttle control. It makes a refined, almost polite noise, giving the impression of many precision-matched oily bits humming in happy unison. Once again, Lexus smooth but not as visceral as some of the competition.
It’s an efficient unit, rated at 10.8 L/100 km city and 7.7 L/100 km highway. And premium fuel required, natch.
The six-speed transmission works seamlessly in fully auto mode, and when calling for shifts with the paddles it swaps cogs swiftly and obediently. It doesn’t, however, do the cool throttle-blip on downshifts like the five-speed auto in the Infiniti G35.
So all the elements of a thrilling sports sedan experience are present and accounted for. How does it all come together on the road?
As a Lexus, it’s everything you’d expect. As a BMW fighter, it comes up a bit short. The fully electronic steering (a system generally not known for its feel) is somewhat mute, not forthcoming with news from the front contact patches. Additionally, the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (electronic stability/traction control to you and me) is too quick to put a clamp on fun, draining off the power long before the tail even thinks of breaking loose.
For most drivers, this won’t matter, but for those who look for intimacy and a dash of daring in their sports sedans, the IS 350 will be too reluctant a dance partner.
The base IS 350 comes well equipped with SmartAccess keyless entry and starter button, dual-zone climate control, heated and foldable side mirrors, anti-theft system, and a premium 13-speaker, iPod-ready AM/FM/CD/MP3 player with in-dash 6-CD changer.
The IS airbag count is high: two front, two front seat-mounted side airbags, front and rear side curtain airbags and twin front knee airbags.
As is usually the case with press vehicles, this tester was loaded. Fitted with the top-tier Luxury with Navigation Package, the price escalated to $59,950.
For that, you get 225/40R18 front and 255/40R18 rear performance tires, power moonroof, power tilt and telescope steering column, memory seat system, power rear window sunshade, rain-sensing wipers, Bi-xenon projector adaptive headlights, 14-speaker Mark Levinson sound, and touch-screen navigation with backup camera.
A major annoyance for this writer were the thick and sloping A-pillars which were right in my line of sight when negotiating sharp bends. On the plus side, the tight turning circle made the sedan manoeuvrable in town.
Back seat room is fine for two adults (three in a pinch), and the nicely finished trunk is quite large, although the rear seat back doesn’t fold forward like in the BMW 3-series sedan. Despite this, I managed to squeeze three bass guitars and an overnight bag in there.
Being a bass player, and having spent the better part of my life in the company of drummers (emails of condolence welcome), I’m finding the car/drummer comparison increasingly useful.
If the Lexus IS 350 were a drummer, he’d show up early, have the coolest drum kit, never make a mistake, not even look at a drink, and the chicks would be all over him. But he’d lack that certain bad-ass “something” that makes you want to turn up to eleven and funk the house down.
2007 Lexus IS 350 Luxury w/Navigation
Base price: $59,950
Destination charge: $1775
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $61,825
Manufacturer’s web site